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CD reviews

"Stille Nacht" (Silent Night)

Bettina Pahn, soprano; Joachim Held, lute
rec: Jan 29 - 31, 2009, Vahrendorf, Erlöserkirche
Hänssler Classic - CD 98.525 (© 2009) (59'30")

anon: Passamezzo & Saltarello [1]; Praeambulum & Chorea [1]; Esajas REUSNER (1636-1679): Allemande & Courante; Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem; In dulci jubilo; Passacaglia in D; Vom Himmel hoch; trad: Es ist ein Ros entsprungen; Es kommt ein Schiff geladen; Es wollt ein Jäger jagen; Geborn ist uns ein Kindelein; Ihr Kinderlein kommet; In dulci jubilo; Kommet, ihr Hirten; Laufet, ihr Hirten; Maria durch ein Dornwald ging; Mariä Verkündigung (Es flog ein kleins Waldvögelein); Mit diesem neuen Jahre; O, du fröhliche; O Jesulein zart; Quem pastores laudavere; Resonet in laudibus; Still, still, still; Stille Nacht; Susani, susani; Sys willekomen heire kerst; Uns ist geborn ein Kindelein; Und unser lieben Frauen; Vom Himmel hoch; Wach, Nachtigall, wach auf!

(Sources: [1] Lute Book of Johannes Arpinus)

When a professional singer sets out to make a disc of traditional songs, the best advice he or she can get is: keep it simple! That is what Bettina Pahn has done, and that is why this disc of traditional Christmas songs is a winner in every respect. Because of the choice of music and the way it is performed this disc is a treasure.

Let me start by getting my only criticism out of the way: the lyrics are not in the booklet. That is not that much of a problem for those who understand German, thanks to Ms Pahn's excellent diction, but for non-German speakers this is a serious omission. The disc is apparently not just directed to the German market, as the programme notes are also in English. But in order fully to enjoy the songs at least English translations should have been given.

A search on the internet is worth the effort: the lyrics of a number of songs can be found, sometimes with a translation. The texts may differ in details as traditional songs sometimes change with time, but they will at least give some idea of what the songs are about.

Bettina Pahn is a young German singer who started to study the cello and later turned to singing. This has been a happy decision as in recent years she has made a good career, both in Germany and internationally. She has been involved in the recording of the complete vocal works of Dietrich Buxtehude by Ton Koopman, and has also sung with renowned conductors like Frieder Bernius and Pierre Cao. For a number of years she has worked with Joachim Held, and this partnership has resulted in 2007 in a very fine disc of German folk songs (Hänssler Classic CD 98.284).

The features of that disc are noticeable here as well. As I have already stated Pahn has excellent diction. I could understand practically every word she sang. This is also due to the recording; the engineer has done a great job. But it is not just a matter of diction, the projection of the voice is also very good, and this allows her to follow every distinction in the text very closely. This results in a natural delivery of the text and a perfect expression of its content.

This is especially important as the various songs are quite different in character. Some of them are hymns which are also used by composers in cantatas or oratorios, like Vom Himmel hoch or In dulci jubilo. Others are typical traditional songs, like Kommet, ihr Hirten or Es wollt ein Jäger jagen. The latter is a so-called contrafactum: the original secular text has been replaced by sacred words. In this version the hunter is hunting with the angel Gabriel. When they meet Mary Gabriel tells her she is going to be the mother of Jesus. Mariä Verkündigung is also about the Annunciation, and again this is a contrafactum. Another bird appears in Wach, Nachtigall, wach as the nightingale is urged to fly to the cradle and sing for the newborn baby.

Some songs are lullabies, like Still, still, still and O Jesulein zart, which are sung with great finesse. Ms Pahn feels equally at home in the children's song Ihr Kinderlein kommet. To this category also belongs Susani, susani, which is a song for the so-called Kindelwiegen (rocking the cradle). Once this was a traditional ceremony during Christmas time in Germany, but was also known in Flanders.

There are some songs which not only refer to the birth of Jesus, but also to his Passion. Traditionally these always belonged together, and a composer like Bach often connected them in his music. One finds this connection, for instance, in Es kommt ein Schiff geladen which says that he who wants to embrace Jesus also has to die and spiritually resurrect with him. Others are Geborn is uns ein Kindelein and the last song, written for New Year, Mit diesem neuen Jahre. Spiritual depth is even present in a lullaby like Still, still, still which says: "Open heaven's realm to us, if we must die one day."

The differentiation in the programme isn't only reflected by the variety in character between the songs, the music recorded here also stretches from the Middle Ages to the early 19th century. The oldest piece is from the 12th century, Sys willekomen heire kerst, although fragments of it go back as far as the 10th century. The latest piece is the famous Stille Nacht, which is given a beautiful and unsentimental performance.

Lastly something about the lutenist Joachim Held. Among his teachers were Eugen Dombois and Hopkinson Smith. He has developed into one of the world's leading lute players. He regularly makes recordings as soloist and often plays the basso continuo in various ensembles and orchestras. On this disc he proves to be a very refined and sensitive player, who follows and supports Bettina Pahn very carefully. He also plays some solo pieces. Among them are nice settings of Christmas songs by the German lute player and composer Esajas Reusner. From the same composer comes the substantial Passacaglia in D which contains some daring harmonic passages.

This is a splendid disc for Christmastide which differs from most discs for this time of the year. It contains several gems which are hardly known, especially outside the German-speaking world. The whole programme is intelligently put together and performed with great refinement and subtlety. This is a disc to listen to in peace and quiet.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Joachim Held
Bettina Pahn

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